The UK’s most common owl species, tawny owls live in a wide range of habitats, including both rural and urban settings. Like all owls, they are carnivores, but what is the most common prey of a tawny owl?
Keep reading to find out if tawnies prefer rodents to birds, and whether pet cats and rabbits are safe from their clutches.
Tawny owls are nocturnal and hunt live prey each night. Town-dwelling tawnies’ diets primarily consist of birds and rats, while those living and hunting in woodlands prey mainly on mice, voles and other small mammals, particularly moles and shrews.
On occasions, other small animals, including frogs, toads, bats and lizards may be hunted, and it’s not uncommon for tawny owls to eat earthworms as a quick and easy snack from a grassy lawn after it has rained.
Seeds, nuts and fruit form no part of a tawny owl’s diet, and although on rare occasions they may be seen eating carrion, for example roadkill, their prey is almost exclusively caught live and swallowed whole.
To learn more about the dietary preferences of tawny owls, and the differences in prey of town-based birds compared to those living in more rural areas, then please read on.
Tawny Owl diets depend heavily on their habitats, with town dwelling Tawnies' mainly eating birds and rats, and and woodland populations eating small mammals, such as mice and voles
Tawny owls are carnivores that prey on birds and small mammals, and occasionally supplement these food sources with earthworms and small amphibians.
The preferred foods of tawny owls vary according to location and habitat. In towns, birds – in particular pigeons – and rats make up the largest share of a tawny owl’s diet. In woodlands and rural settings, mice and voles represent the majority of their prey.
In the absence of other, more meaty prey, tawny owls may sometimes eat large insects, for example beetles and moths. However, on examination of pellets from a small sample of tawny owls, no traces of insects or invertebrate prey was found.
When small mammals aren't available, Tawny Owls may hunt large insects, such as beetles and moths
The diet of tawny owls living in urban locations typically consists of more birds than animals, with pigeons, blackbirds, starlings and sparrows among the most common bird species preyed on. Records do exist of tawny owls preying on some unexpected species, including mallards and kittiwakes.
Mice and voles are among the chief food prey of hunting tawny owls in woodland and rural settings, while rats are commonly caught in towns. Moles, shrews, small rabbits, squirrels and other small rodents may also be eaten, as well as bats, frogs, toads and lizards.
Live prey is by far the most common source of food, although reports do exist of tawny owls feeding on carrion, including dead sheep, foxes, hares, and rabbits.
Tawny Owls consume a lot of mice and voles
Tawny owls need to eat regularly, and each night need to consume the equivalent of around 3 chicks or 6 mice to sustain their energy requirements. Their whole night is spent in a repeating cycle of watch-prey-eat.
Tawny owls do not visit garden feeders, as bird tables and hanging feeders do not offer foods that feature in their natural diet.
Tawny owls are nocturnal hunters and are rarely seen in daylight. They spend daylight hours camouflaged among branches close to tree trunks. After darkness falls, tawny owls spend much of the night either scanning for their next kill from a perch in a tree or actively hunting and prey on the ground.
Only in the rarest cases – for example, if feeding young and not enough food has been brought to the nest the previous night – might tawny owls be seen hunting in the daytime.
Tawny Owls spend the night hunting for prey
Using their keen night vision, tawny owls hunt in darkness, using their large round eyes to scan the ground below for small rodents and other prey.
Their exceptional hearing is so finely tuned, it allows them to pick up on the tiniest squeak or rustle of leaves, leading them to swoop within seconds with pinpoint accuracy to seize their prey.
Lying in wait on a woodland branch, tawny owls will scan the ground below for movement before dropping silently from their perch and grabbing hold of their intended prey with their powerful talons. Prey is then swallowed whole.
Tawny Owl in flight across the woodland
A tawny owl’s diet is largely the same all year round, consisting of rodents and birds, although in winter small rodents and young birds may be in shorter supply. This may lead to an increased number of earthworms eaten, particularly after wet weather when they are regularly found in meadows or on lawns.
In summer, during the breeding season for many bird species, young chicks are more abundant and may offer an easy, almost effortless meal for hunting tawny owls. Mice, voles, rats
Tawny owls bring prey to the nest, which is then torn into smaller pieces that owlets can swallow whole. Prey items are whatever the adult birds have caught, mainly small birds, mice, shrews and voles.
Tawny Owlet, or chick, sleeping in the nest
Tawny owls are active predators and hunt their own prey. They do not rely on food supplied by humans as any part of their diet.
Tawny owls do not usually need a source of drinking water, instead taking all the moisture they need from their prey to meet their hydration needs.
Tawny owls catch their own prey and do not visit bird feeders to eat seed or peanuts. However, one way of attracting tawny owls to your garden may be to put up a suitable tawny owl nest box lined with wood chippings and mounted on a tree trunk between 3 m and 5 m (10 ft to 50 ft) off the ground. Grassy lawns provide a source of earthworms, particularly on wet nights.
When disturbed, tawny owls can become aggressive, especially when their nest, eggs or young are under threat.
For this reason, it may be unwise for families with young children to encourage tawny owls to set up home in their garden as sudden noises or bursts of activity nearby may cause them to feel their nest site is in danger.
Tawny Owl at night, on the lookout for prey
Squirrels may be caught and eaten by tawny owls, although they are not among their most commonly hunted prey. Squirrels are among the largest prey that can be successfully caught and killed by tawny owls.
Small rabbits are frequently preyed on by tawny owls in rural areas. Larger rabbits and hares may prove too bulky for tawny owls to get a firm enough grip on to or swallow whole.
Based purely on their size, there may be some low risk of a kitten or small cat being caught and eaten by a tawny owl. Some anecdotal reports of similar attacks do exist, although are incredibly uncommon.
Brighten up your inbox with our exclusive newsletter, enjoyed by thousands of people from around the world.
© 2023 - Birdfact. All rights reserved. No part of this site may be reproduced without our written permission.